Egypt: Why we need to talk more about women’s employment

Ghada Barsoum
Thursday 17 Mar 2016

Women have always worked in Egyptian culture. But urbanisation changed this work, opening new possibilities that could greatly benefit the country's development profile if tapped

“When we find jobs for the men, we can think about finding jobs for the women." This is one of the most common responses when the issue of women’s employment is raised in Egypt. The World Values Survey, which covers many countries and compares responses on issues pertaining to values of work and gender among others, confirms the prevalence of these views.

The truth is women’s employment issues are at the heart of many of Egypt’s most urgent policy issues. I seek in this article to explain how is this the case.

Consider for a moment the issue of youth unemployment. This is one of the key and most serious policy issues in Egypt. Virtually every policymaker in Egypt is quoted listing youth unemployment as a top priority issue.

True, Egypt has more than two million unemployed young people. These are a “time bomb” as many policymakers would commonly add. But what is the gender distribution of these unemployed young people?

More than 1.3 million of these unemployed youth are young women. The overall unemployment rate in Egypt, according to Egypt’s central statistical bureau, is 13.4 percent — 9.9 percent among men and 24.8 percent among women, according to the same source. Simple math shows that if the rate of women’s unemployment were the same as men’s, the unemployment rate in Egypt would be lower overall.

Consider the issue of poverty, another pressing policy issue. Economists talk of the “women’s gift” to the economy. That is, when you have more productive members of the society you will increase GDP. This has prompted the World Bank in its 2012 World Development Report to argue that the focus on women is “smart economics” for productivity gains, global competitiveness and for higher household income.

It does not take a flagship report to explain the fact that two incomes in one household are better than one. Interestingly, a report by Booz and Co estimated in 2012 that if female employment rates were to match male employment rates in Egypt, the country’s GDP would increase by 34 per cent. This certainly would be a key gain that cannot be brushed off easily.

Now consider another thorny policy issue in Egypt: overpopulation. Research has furnished overwhelming global evidence that women’s wage work outside the home is associated with having fewer children.

In fact, Arab countries with more working women have reached the “replacement rate” — that is, a number of births similar to the number of deaths, curbing population growth. This is the situation of Tunisia and Lebanon.

Classic modernisation theory on population growth argues that when women are educated, they are better mothers who are able to better care for their children. This reduces child mortality rates. Educated women are also more likely to invest in educating their children and would aim at having a fewer number of children because each child would require more investment.

When women work, the decision to have more children becomes more costly and this explains global evidence on the relationship between women’s employment and population size.

But what can be done to increase women’s employment in Egypt? Common wisdom is that women can work when their households have access to better services, starting from water and sanitation but including easy access to transportation and road safety.

Improving access to social services, and particularly road safety and transportation, are key to women’s employment. Safe transportation would mean no sexual harassment on the road, saving women’s dignity. Also important, women primarily work when they can find trusted and affordable childcare facilities. These are not readily accessible to many women in Egypt.

Trusted childcare facilities are commonly very expensive. Working women who have to leave children with a neighbour or an aging parent are faced with difficult choices. Women also work when they are addressed by serious employment programmes, known as active labour market policies, that support their transition to the labour market.

These programmes commonly provide skill training, job placement services, including counseling, or entrepreneurship promotion through access to finance and training. Finally, women work when employers are appreciative of their other time demands and are ready to allow for flexible hours and a healthy life/work balance.

But for women to work, first and foremost, we should be able to talk more about women’s work as a development priority. Women’s work is not a Western invention. Women have always worked in our culture.

The household has always been a productive economic unit. Cheese, butter, milk and eggs were the products of the household in pre-modern societies and Egyptian women were no exception. Women’s work is part of our heritage and tradition. With urbanisation, the household is ceased to be a production unit. But this should not be a reason to lose the development benefits of women’s work.

The writer is assistant professor at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Her research focuses on issues of youth, gender, employment and poverty. 

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